One of the 49ers biggest problems in the latter half of the 2012 season was a struggling pass rush. Once Justin Smith and Aldon Smith got hurt, the 49ers pass rush struggled mightily. The secondary had its own issues, but part of that was due to a lack of consistent pass rush up front.
The 49ers put in a lot of work this offseason adding talent to the defensive front, and Thursday evening we got to see some of it in action. One player in particular who stood out was outside linebacker Corey Lemonier. The 49ers moved up five spots in the third round to grab the college defensive end, with plans to convert him into a stand-up outside linebacker.
Thursday evening, we got to see how Lemonier is developing, and the results are strong. He struggled when it came to setting the edge against the run, but in the pass rush, his talents shined. He did not secure a sack, but he forced multiple pressures, and with time will be able to turn those into sacks.
Lemonier ended up with 28 snaps on the day, getting his opportunities against second and third string offensive players. The next big step will be getting him some first team snaps. Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks are the 49ers starting linebackers for the coming season, but for preseason purposes, we already know what they can do. Next week, when the 49ers and Chiefs are playing their first string offense and defense a little longer, why not get Lemonier some of those first team snaps and see how he does against first string offensive linemen?
Every year we get enamored with certain players, some of whom pan out, some of whom do not. The 49ers liked something about Lemonier, and in his first game, it was easy to see why. The natural skills are there, and with a little refinement, he could be just a little bit beastly in the pass rush. He will have to learn to counter against the better pass protectors in the league, but I think it is entirely reasonable to be optimistic one game in.
The 49ers are looking at Lemonier, Parys Haralson, Cam Johnson and Dan Skuta for their reserve outside linebacker spots. The entire group did solid work yesterday, leaving the competition up for grabs. For now though, Lemonier has taken a step toward earning somewhat regular playing time. My guess for the coming season would be that he fills a role somewhat similar to Aldon Smith's rookie season. We will see him worked in primarily on pass rush downs, operating as one of the defensive ends in the 49ers four man front.
If Lemonier's first game is any indication, the 49ers could have themselves some strong depth in their pass rush. Aldon Smith will get most of the nickel snaps, but Lemonier could spell Ahmad Brooks, and occasionally Smith. This could keep the group especially fresh, particularly later in the season and hopefully into the playoffs. If that happens, suddenly a solid pass rush could turn into a great pass rush.